To win a World Series, you just might need an ace. Someone like Madison Bumgarner, or Frank Viola.
To accomplish the Twins’ current goal, which is to not be awful, the requirements for a starting rotation are less grandiose.
The Twins need their rotation to not be terrible.
That’s the first and most important step to becoming competitive.
And that’s why archaic, often-ridiculed metrics like “quality starts” can be far more important than any advanced metrics.
As the Twins desperately try to end perhaps the worst four-year run of incompetence in franchise history, they will turn to the lowly, old-school punchline that is the quality start.
The quality start statistic was invented by esteemed baseball writer John Lowe. It posits that a pitcher who gives his team, at worst, six innings pitched and three or fewer earned runs allowed has given his team the proverbial chance to win.
If a pitcher does the minimum required, he can win a game despite leaving three innings to his bullpen and compiling a 4.50 ERA. That’s why old-school pitchers and new-school statisticians scoff at the measurement.
For the Twins, the statistic, whatever its flaws, holds great relevance. When Twins starting pitchers have quality starts, their team usually wins.
When the Twins won the World Series in 1987, they ranked 10th in the major leagues with 80 quality starts. When they won the Series in ’91, they ranked tied for ninth.
When the Twins were preparing to end their last losing streak — eight consecutive losing seasons from 1993 to 2000 — they ranked tied for 18th in quality starts in 2000, and improved to tied for 13th in 2001. Their victory totals those years jumped from 69 to 85.
During their current four-year losing streak, the Twins have ranked, from 2011 on, 22nd, 29th, 30th and 29th in quality starts.
During their 10-year run of regular-season excellence, from 2001 to 2010, the Twins ranked 13th, 14th, 15th, eighth, ninth, 21st, 14th, sixth, 14th and 16th.
When the Twins rotation doesn’t doom them, they often find a way to win.
Johan Santana was their best starter since Frank Viola, but he’s not the patron saint of Twins pitching. Brad Radke is. Radke was durable and reliable and rarely more than that. He’s also the last pitcher drafted and developed by the Twins who could be called anything close to an ace.
The current Twins have begun drafting and attempting to develop more power arms, which is ideal. But much of the Twins’ past success has been built on the kinds of pitchers who provide quality starts while rarely hitting 95 on the radar gun.
The Twins went to the ALCS in 2002 with a rotation of Radke, Joe Mays, Rick Reed, Eric Milton and Kyle Lohse, with Santana acting as a sixth starter and reliever.
They were contenders from 2008 to 2010 with starters such as Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, Carl Pavano and Kevin Slowey.
Old-school pitchers derisively use the term “five-and-fly” for the kind of modern-day pitchers who want to pitch the minimum number of innings to qualify for a victory, then hit the showers.
Six-and-succeed isn’t a bad mantra for the current century.
“We’ve got to get more innings out of our starters,” Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said in March. “We need more quality starts, more deep starts, more competent starts. That’s where it all begins, with your starting rotation.”
As one of the best farm systems in baseball starts to produce top athletes at almost every position, the Twins’ fielding range should improve. New manager Paul Molitor promises to improve the team’s baserunning and fundamentals.
Last year, the Twins finished seventh in the majors in runs scored even while Joe Mauer contributed little, and Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas were introduced to the big leagues.
By the 2016 season, the Twins’ everyday lineup could be the envy of all of baseball. It should feature power, speed, productive at-bats and fielding range.
If the Twins can build a competent rotation, history says that might be enough to make them winners again.